There’s no place like home.
That at least is the consensus among HSU men’s basketball head coach Tae Norwood and his squad, who finally got the opportunity to play a game in front of the Lumberjack faithful with their home opener against visiting Lincoln University on Saturday, Nov. 20. The game marked the first home event for the team since February of 2020, and an amped crowd of over 800 fans was treated to an instant classic, as the Lumberjacks closed a seven point deficit with just under three minutes remaining to defeat the Oaklanders 81-78.
It’s also not every day that your first home game features an NBA hall-of-famer. Gary Payton, a 17-year veteran of the NBA best known for his time with the Seattle SuperSonics, roamed courtside for Lincoln.
After the game, Payton said he was excited to compete with his young team against a difficult road crowd in order to battle test them.
“I love it [the hostile road environment], that makes me even more pumped,” Payton said. “You want to be able to make the crowd quiet, and we had them quiet for a long time.”
The win is the third straight victory so far in this young season in which the ‘Jacks have prevailed by only four points or less.
“I’m gonna have to go call my cardiologist,” Lumberjack coach Tae Norwood said. “It’s our third game down to the wire. All credit to our guys, their resilience and just the competitiveness and the will to win the game and the will to never quit, it paid off for us.”
The ‘Jacks led by as much as 17 in the first half before Lincoln closed the frame by going on a 25-8 run in the final seven minutes to enter halftime with a 40-38 lead. Lincoln led by as much as eight in the second half, but a 12-3 run closed the gap to one with 7:28 remaining. The Oaklanders brought the lead back to seven over the next five minutes, but a 3-pointer by senior Amari Green and a tip-in by transfer AJ Sims closed the deficit back to one. Sims proved to be key on the defensive side, drawing an offensive charge on Lincoln’s next possession to regain the ball. Jaden Edwards hit a jumper with just seven seconds remaining to give the Lumberjacks the lead for good, as the team improved to 3-0 with an 81-78 victory.
Coach Norwood credited Sims’ drawing a charge as the highlight play of the evening.
“AJ picked up two big time charges on the defensive end in that last four minute stand to give us back the ball,” Norwood said. “Those things aren’t sexy. They’re not the sexy play.”
Jaden Edwards led the squad again with 22 points. Three other Lumberjacks scored in double digits, including 10 by Sims and Green and a season high 12 points for Thomas Melonja.
Norwood and Sims both credited their team’s identity, which includes constant full-court pressure, as a driving factor in the victory.
“We were trying to get stops,” the coach said. “I didn’t want to take the press off. I just thought, ‘this is who we are.’ Credit to them [Lincoln], they did a really good job of handling our press for 40 minutes.”
“The press kinda does scare you,” Sims said. “The reason I can say that is because I deal with it every day in practice. Even the best guards, it can make you tumble up in there. Once we get about one or two steals, that energy keeps going and we want to keep attacking you, keeping the pressure on you.”
For many players on the roster, as well as Norwood himself, Saturday’s game was also their first glimpse at the home crowd advantage that Lumberjack Arena can bring.
“They were loud,” Norwood said. “Sometimes they were loud even when we were shooting free throws. If we get that excitement and that type of environment every game then we are going to be tough out every night at home.”
Sims also agreed with his coach about the crowd’s energy.
“I can honestly say that was probably the biggest, loudest supportive crowd I’ve ever played in,” Sims said. “They bring a lot of energy that makes you want to keep playing harder. Whether it was offensively or defensively, I felt they [the crowd] were a big part of us winning tonight.”
Even Payton, who knows a thing or two about tough crowds, admitted how much they can impact a game if you let them get loud.
“When you lose focus and you let a crowd get into it, you get rattled and then you pick up stuff,” Payton said. “They start running around doing everything, putting their hands on balls and we just didn’t accept it right.”
“It was as good as advertised,” Norwood said. “This is an unbelievable environment that supports its basketball program, that loves this HSU brand.”